It’s been interesting to see the ongoing conversation about Prosper Waco in the Trib lately. Is Prosper Waco a wise investment that will give us the traction we need to make progress against our stubbornly high rate of poverty? Or is it a waste of time and money wrapped in a thick blanket of bureaucratic doublespeak? Time will tell I suppose. At this point, honestly, I think it could go either way. It’s up to us.

I don’t work for Prosper Waco and I’m not on its board, but I was a member of the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee. In 2010, we were appointed by the Waco City Council to come up with strategies for reducing poverty in Waco. We made six broad strategic recommendations, including this one:

“Strategy 6 – Establish an organization to provide ongoing coordination and leadership for our work together. – Poverty has been a challenge for Waco throughout its history. Success in reducing poverty will require sustained leadership and administration. The suggested goals proposed by the [Poverty Solutions Steering Committee] task teams give us important direction regarding how to move forward, but these goals are only a first step. Ongoing rounds of planning, implementation and evaluation will be needed to make our aspirations our reality. To effectively leverage our community resources, we need an organization whose central purpose and first priority is to coordinate this work. This organization will not provide direct services, but will provide the organizational scaffolding to stimulate, synchronize and harmonize efforts throughout the community. A key element for the success of this organization will be support and engagement from throughout the community; it must be a citywide public/private partnership.”

The city council agreed with that recommendation, and Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. and several others have worked very hard to establish such an organization, which we now know as Prosper Waco. Is it perfect? Nope. Is it a good step? I think so.

I’m sure you know as well as I do about all the terrific work that is already going on in Waco to help people and families with low incomes: Mission Waco, Christian’s Men & Women’s Job Corps, EOAC, Salvation Army, AVANCE, Talitha Koum, Communities in Schools, Habitat for Humanity, Waco Community Development Corp., NeighborWorks, Caritas, Shepherd’s Heart, Goodwill, Restoration Haven … the list goes on and on. These groups are helping hundreds of people every day. Maybe thousands.

I can say with confidence every single person who works at every single one of these organizations and agencies would love it if there were fewer people who needed their services. Yet despite all this good intention and hard work, our rate of poverty remains steady. The image that comes to mind is of dozens of individual gears spinning separately. It appears we have made about as much progress as we are going to make by spinning separately. The idea behind Prosper Waco is that our opportunity for progress lies in our ability to connect our gears. The purpose of Prosper Waco is to help us work together better and, by doing that, to multiply the amount of benefit we are getting from the amount of work we are doing.

As a community, our thinking on poverty is getting more sophisticated. We once focused most of our energy on the question, “How can we help poor people?” And we have helped a lot of people. Now we look more deeply at the root of the problem. We are realizing that if more of us are making enough money to live on (and a little to spare), then our community is better off and we are all better off. Our question has changed. We are starting to ask ourselves, “How can we build the kind of community where fewer of us are poor and more of us are making enough money to spend and invest here?”

To answer this, we need more of us involved than just the good people already working their tails off at our various social service agencies. We need every part of our civic and economic system. We need the businesses, chambers of commerce, schools (public, private and higher-ed), churches, the city and county governments, people who have firsthand knowledge of what it is to live on a very low income, people who have never had to worry about having enough and all of the rest of us in between.

Do you believe getting all these different groups of people to work together and pull in the same direction will be an easy task? If you do, then you have not tried it. Pulling these gears together will require time, energy, creative thinking and plenty of work.

It requires people to chase down the people who need to be involved and convince them to get involved, then convince them again when they start to fade away. It requires people who can learn the “language” of each group and serve as interpreters when they misunderstand each other. It requires people who know how to run meetings so they are effective and meaningful. It requires people to do the research between the meetings so that we have real information to work from instead of just pooled intuition and opinion. It requires people to check and see what other cities are doing so we can steal their best ideas. It requires people to figure out how to “keep score” to figure out whether we are making any progress or not, and what’s working and what’s not. It requires people who can help the rest of us make plans and then help us implement those plans across organizational boundaries. It requires keeping up with what we have done, and what we said we would do, and who has followed through and who needs to be reminded and urged forward. It requires someone to push against the powerful force of “the way we do things around here” and get us to consider doing things a different way.

This is the work Prosper Waco was created to do: the work of helping us work together.

Is it working? For heaven’s sakes, no. Not yet. Prosper Waco is in its infancy. It has barely learned to turn over on its stomach, much less crawl or walk. This work is momentous and challenging and there are basically no instructions. It will take a good little while for it to work.

Will it work? I don’t know. I think there is a good chance that it can. Certainly a better chance than if we just keep doing the same things we have been doing. Other people are starting to believe in us. The National Resource Network is willing to invest $300,000 or so in us because they believe it can work.

The purpose of Prosper Waco is not to do the work of making our community stronger but to provide the support we, the members of this community, need in order to work together more effectively to make our community stronger. It’s up to us whether Prosper Waco works or not. There is no them and us. Them are us. And we all have work to do.

Longime civic leader Ashley Bean Thornton is director of professional and organizational development at Baylor University. She chaired the Poverty Solutions Steering Committee appointed by the Waco City Council.